Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The legacy of the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden

August 16, 2022
<p>Lansing residents explore the W.J. Beal Botanical Gardens during the 25th anniversary of Lansing’s Be a Tourist in Your Own Town on June 1, 2019.</p>

Lansing residents explore the W.J. Beal Botanical Gardens during the 25th anniversary of Lansing’s Be a Tourist in Your Own Town on June 1, 2019.

Photo by Matt Zubik | The State News

Established in 1873, the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden is the longest running continuously operated botanical university garden in the United States.

“The WJ Beal Botanical Garden has played a central role in the plant sciences on campus for 149 years because it has been a place where research and education are the main focus,” said Alan Prather, the Interim Director of the garden, in an email.  “Our curated plant collections highlight many important biological and cultural themes, focusing on the role of plants in human lives. You can come to the Garden and see food plants, medicinal plants, and toxic plants from around the world. You can learn about plant diversity. Each plant in the collection has its own story to tell and you can spend hours in the garden reading those stories. Plants are important to every person, and the Garden offers a way for everyone to understand that more clearly.”

Moving into its 150th year, the Garden has begun work on two large projects for this coming Fall.  

“One will be a restoration project on the Red Cedar Riverbank in the Garden that showcases what native riverbank communities could be like in Michigan,” said Prather in the email. “We’re removing invasive species, planting native ones, stopping erosion, and adding interpretive signs to explain it all. Another project will be a pollinator garden based on native plants, including some of the species that Beal placed in the Garden over a century ago.”

The Garden is also developing new policies to protect the environment and reduce the spread of invasive plant species. 

“As times change, the Garden should change too—we need to reflect the needs of our times and be good stewards of our environment. These issues will receive growing attention from our program and this type of evolution is what has kept the garden relevant and loved for almost 150 years,” said Prather. 

Although the Garden focuses on research and education, there is an undeniable beauty and tranquility to it.  Science serves to remind us that the outdoors is a form of healing, a space away from the overabundance of stress, doubt, and pain that plagues most of us.

“We know people come here to find some tranquility in the heart of a busy, often stressful, campus,” said Prather in an email.  “So, another way we connect to our community is to honor the Garden’s role in the peace of mind of Spartans and campus visitors. We have several benches where you can sit quietly and enjoy the plants and views. We offer Pilates in the Garden with MSU Health4U and IM Circle during the summer. We have events like Music and the Garden with the College of Music. Next year, we plan to have place-based guided meditations available at some stations where you can connect via a QR code. Honoring this role of the Garden means that everyone can appreciate it and every Spartan can create great memories here.”

William J. Beal, who originally founded the Garden back in 1873, created such a long-lasting impact on campus and on the institution because he was extremely focused on long-term, big science questions. In addition to starting the Botanical Garden and nurturing it through his decades at MSU, he also created the famous Beal Seed Experiment, which is the longest running seed experiment in the world. Eventually, he took over directorship of the MSU Herbarium and spread the collection from 20,000 specimens to over 100,000. 

Now, the Herbarium holds over 540,000 specimens and continues to grow each day. 

Beal planted the Beal Pinetum on campus and started the Campus Arboretum, as well as planted many of the trees growing on campus today, too!  

“He kick-started forestry in the Midwest,” said Prather in an email.  “These contributions have all stood the test of time. He was immensely impactful in the fields of agriculture, crop and weed science, forestry, plant biology, etc. and without his hard work and success, MSU wouldn’t be one of the world’s leaders in plant science. When he invested his time and energy, great things happened—one of those things being the WJ Beal Botanical Garden.”

“From my perspective as Campus Planner and landscape architect (class of 1982), the garden offers students, faculty, staff, alumni, and visitors many positive opportunities,” said Stephen Troost in an email.

According to Troost, students are provided with resources for structured teaching, learning and research.  The Garden serves as a venue for exploring and engaging with the outdoors in the hopes of educating visitors in a collegiate manner, as well as spiritual one.

“The informative staff and narrative signs provide wonderful information about native and non-native plant material in an organized and thoughtful manner,” said Troost in an email.  “The Garden offers a place for quiet contemplation and mental relaxation, all part of a healthy living experience.” 

The Garden also helps fulfill the university’s land grant mission by providing outreach events and resources for any visitor to enjoy. 

“Plant collections are grouped by specific subject groups such as plant classification (taxonomy), economic use (medicinal plants, food plants, perfume plants, fiber plants, toxic plants, dye plants, weeds, Native American food plants etc.), Michigan endangered and threatened plants, and so on,” said Director Emeritus of the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden and Campus Arboretum Frank Telewski in an email.  “So, there are plenty of opportunities for self-directed learning.”

Professor Beal created the garden as a 'Living outdoor laboratory" for botany instruction.  When he established the garden in 1873, he was one of the first instructors to encourage and implement the idea of hands-on learning.  In the mid 1800's, education was based primarily on book and lecture instruction.  Laboratory experience as students now experience did not exist back then.  

“Professor Beal sought to change that by introducing microscopes to the classroom, now a hands-on laboratory experience.  The microscope was an expensive scientific instrument at the time, but the cost of microscopes was decreasing as manufacturing technology increased availability.  He designed the garden specifically for students to enter the garden, observe the plants, collect plant parts, and take them back to the laboratory and observe them under the microscope,” said Telewski in an email.  

Professor Beal had a quote that went "Keep squinting," which was his response to students when he asked them to describe what they saw when they observed a plant.  When the student believed they had reported everything they could analyze to Beal, the professor knew that the student still hadn't seen everything they could report on and encouraged the student to "Keep squinting".  

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“He wanted to train his students to become ‘keen observers of the world around them,’ a lesson still appropriate today and one the Beal Botanical Garden endeavors to instill in students across campus and visitors from around the world,” said Telewski in an email.

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